A ‘Global Civil War’?

Peer-reviewed Journal Article

Tønnesson, Stein (2002) A ‘Global Civil War’? , Security Dialogue 33(3): .

Viewpoints: A 'Global Civil War'?

The US–Al-Qaeda war does not fit into our normal categories. It is neither a civil nor an international war, although it has elements of both. Nor does it resemble the colonial wars, which in the PRIO/Uppsala dataset are characterized as 'extra-systemic'. Should the US–Al-Qaeda war be considered another 'extra-systemic' aberration? Or does it represent a new category?

Seemingly, 'global civil war' is a contradiction in terms. A 'civil war' must be within one society, and because societies are associated with the nation, a civil war cannot be global: a global war, such as World War II, is normally seen as 'international'. But the US–Al-Qaeda war is not primarily a war between states, although the USA did target Afghanistan. If the term 'global civil war' is applicable, then it presupposes the existence of, or a process leading towards, a global society. Therefore, the question of whether the term 'global civil war' is a relevant category is also a question of whether today's world is moving towards a global society.

There are strong reasons for considering the US–Al-Qaeda war as global. The first is the multinational character of Al-Qaeda's fighters, armed operations and goals. Recruits from many parts of the world formed a transnational community at training camps in Afghanistan. The 384 Guantanamo Bay captives are reported to come from at least 30 different countries. Just as the colonial prisons served as universities in revolutionary warfare, the prison camp experience of Al-Qaeda may galvanize a transnational fighting force for the future. Al-Qaeda attacks have taken place in Kenya, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, New York and Washington, and their main goal is to liberate the holy places in Mecca and Medina from the Saudi regime and the US military forces that have now been stationed in the peninsula for more than ten years. The goal is not to free a nation-state called Saudi Arabia, not even the Arab nation, but to free a world religion's holy places from the presence of infidels in order to pave the way for the resurgence of the Caliphate.

Another reason for considering the war as global is the nature of the US response to 11 September. The Bush administration reacted with a global campaign against a general phenomenon called 'terrorism'. The campaign targets not only clandestine transnational groups, but also many national ones, as well as states accused of sponsoring or providing sanctuary for terrorists. President Bush has consistently sought to lump together terrorists and evil states in a combined image of a global enemy. Furthermore, the events of 11 September have led the USA to redefine and globalize its concept of home security. Since it is considered impracticable to protect US borders against intruders or to screen all containers arriving at US ports, home security planners have concluded that US territory must instead be protected by allowing US agents access to the ports of origin of ships travelling to the USA, by acquiring a right to board and inspect other nations' ships on the high seas, by intensively cooperating with intelligence services worldwide and by creating a globally standardized system of 'smart passports' containing data on each holder's track record. The USA already has a virtual monopoly on the most sophisticated hi-tech weapon systems and may seek in the long run to develop a monopoly on weapons of mass destruction. A shorter-term goal is to prevent states such as Iraq, Iran and North Korea from possessing such weapons and to keep them from falling into the hands of terrorists.

A possible objection to the use of the term 'global civil war' is that the US–Al-Qaeda confrontation does not qualify as war. While both antagonists clearly see themselves as being at war with each other, this may not be true in an analytical sense. Al-Qaeda could be characterized as a group of transnational criminals, rather than an army. And when Bush speaks about a 'war against terrorism', the term 'war' could perhaps be understood metaphorically, as with the expression 'war on drugs'. However, this is not how he himself sees it. Bush has not portrayed the campaign as a police operation, but has used heavily military rhetoric. And his main means of fighting Al-Qaeda has been a military campaign in Afghanistan to destroy Al-Qaeda and capture or kill its leaders. This was war, and the war in Afghanistan was part of a global campaign. Moreover, the number of casualties by far exceeds the number required in standard databases for classification as war.

Another more serious objection is that the US–Al-Qaeda war is not all that new a phenomenon. There have been terrorists before. At the turn of the 19th century, terrorists stood behind a wave of political assassinations in many countries, and some commentators expected terrorism to characterize the 20th century. Instead came World War I. Then emerged the international communist movement, which aimed not just to win power in individual nations, but also to revolutionize the world. This was the rationale behind the formation of the Communist International. The 1920s and 1930s saw a global confrontation between international communism and the capitalist, imperial powers. Later, the communist movements only really succeeded in the places where they grafted communism onto nationalism. Hence they were nationalized. If transnational Islamism is going to grow, then it is likely to also be absorbed by concerns for national interest, just as in Iran during its confrontation with Iraq. This argument against the concept 'global civil war' is difficult to refute, since it is based on assumptions about the future. If we think that the nation-state remains sufficiently important to absorb the energy of rebellious movements with global aims, then perhaps transnational terrorism of the Al-Qaeda kind is just another example of a well-known temporary phenomenon. But if we assume that the increasing pace of global communication, travel and migration has made transnational movements more sustainable than they were in the classic era of the nation-state, then Al-Qaeda is unlikely to fade away and new similar movements are likely to emerge.

Yet another argument against the concept 'global civil war' is based on the origins of Al-Qaeda. Rather than a young movement with time on its side, it could be seen as the last spasm of a dying Islamism. The political radicalization of Islam started with the Iranian revolution in 1979 and spread to a number of Muslim countries, only really succeeding in Sudan. In other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, radical Islamists were brutally repressed. In Algeria, they were defeated after a lengthy and bloody confrontation. Now they are also in trouble with the military in Pakistan. Many of the men who joined Al-Qaeda were Islamists who had been marginalized in their home countries and forced into exile. They were relegated to Muslim peripheries in Sudan, Afghanistan, England and other places. And since they were unable to influence their home countries, their only means of getting back to centre stage was to launch terrorist attacks on a global scale. If this is the case, then the key to preventing the resurgence of the Al-Qaeda phenomenon is to reform the Muslim countries in ways that allow young radicals a role in their societies while preventing them from gaining too much ground. In the 1960s, neo-Marxists called this 'repressive tolerance'. They did not want to be tolerated, but would rather be repressed, so they could exemplify the true nature of the bourgeois society. Some reached their goal and entered the terrorist path, but most were repressively tolerated and gradually assimilated into their national societies.

However, Bush is not aiming for repressive tolerance. He is fighting a 'war on terror' on a global scale. In his State of the Union Address of 20 January 2002, he said that 'our war against terror is only beginning.... Thousands of dangerous killers, schooled in the methods of murder, often supported by outlaw regimes, are now spread throughout the world like ticking time bombs, set to go off without warning,... tens of thousands of trained terrorists are still at large. These enemies view the entire world as a battlefield, and we must pursue them wherever they are.' Bush may be wrong in his predictions. Indeed, Al-Qaeda may disappear and the USA may resort to rivalry with China, or to the capitalist liberalism of the Clinton era. Then the term 'global civil war' will be happily forgotten. But if the USA continues to want terrorism as its global enemy, and uses the 'war on terror' to rally other states behind its leadership, then this could lead to a violent global society.

International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), Norway


Stein Tønnesson

Stein Tønnesson

Research Professor